As often happens, a professor emailed me last month asking that we delete a forum thread because it contains an assignment from his course, with the student asking for assistance, which violates his department's honor code. As always, I responded saying that we have a strict policy where we do not delete any content that does not violate any of our rules. However, for some unexplainable reason -- perhaps because I've simply become fed up with repeatedly responding the same way all these years, and it's actually something I strongly believe in -- I felt a strong urge to go into intricate detail and explain my position on the matter to the poor unsuspecting fella. Below are my emails to him (I am only posting my half of the conversation). I'm posting this just for those who might be interested or wanted to offer their own insight into the problem.
Unfortunately, we have a strict policy where we do not delete any content that does not violate any of our Rules (http://www.daniweb.com/community/rules).
By deleting the content, not only are we hurting the person who took the time to ask the question, but we’re REALLY hurting all of the people who took the time out of their day to help someone else. THEY did nothing wrong, and it would really be offensive to them to have their posts removed from the site just for being helpful.
You also have to understand that we receive requests on an almost weekly basis from students who asked questions on our site, received help, and then subsequently demand that we remove all trace of their discussion and the help they received before their professor finds out. We’ve even had cases where students pretended to be their professors or pretended to work for large corporations to intimidate us into taking down their questions. We DON’T help cheaters cover up their tracks.
We tell those students the same thing that we’re telling you. On one hand, DaniWeb is a great place to go to help students to learn. We don’t just spoon-feed answers, but we encourage collaborative discussion and help students be enthusiastic about programming and understand why things work. On the other hand, it’s up to the individual student to know whether or not asking for help on discussion communities is allowed within their school/course, and if they ask for help on the site, then they need to understand that it’s possible their professor will find out. If they know it’s prohibited in their course, then the risk is on them that their professor might find out.
If it’s against your school’s honor code to receive help in discussion communities, then this is something you need to take up with your students. As far as we are concerned, our site encourages help with student projects as long as we feel we are ultimately helping students to learn and not just spoon-feeding them answers.
In fact, many courses (including most programming courses at NYU) actually list DaniWeb on the course syllabus as a great place to go to seek additional help understanding the material outside of the classroom!
One of our mantras is to provide a student-friendly place to learn. According to our policies, our staff requests that students show effort and demonstrate what they’ve tried and done, and we will help them learn and succeed. But if someone just wants a quick answer or wants us to do their homework assignment for them, then we will ask them to show what they’ve tried so far and what is giving them problems.
In the discussion thread that you are directing us to, they posted the code they had tried so far, received help, asked for an explanation of why something worked, ultimately came up with their own solution, and learned along the way.
Please understand that we, as well, understand that cheating and academic dishonesty is not a good thing, and that is precisely why we have the policies in place that we do.
Firstly, you need to understand that DaniWeb was originally created because I was doing my B.S. in Computer Science, and became frustrated that the Comp Sci department at my school was the only department on campus that didn’t provide a free tutoring program. I created the site as a “for comp sci students, by comp sci students” discussion group so that students can learn from each other and get assistance when they were stuck trying to do an assignment.
While I understand this isn’t the case with your school, please understand that there are many schools that DO allow students to receive online assistance for submitted assignments, provided they are learning throughout the process and are not simply handed the answers. Consider it a form of tutoring. Our community caters to that group of students. We’re more than willing to help the student learn as long as they are showing effort and are showing us what they’ve accomplished along the way, and we aren’t just spoon-feeding answers to them.
For many of us, myself included, that is how we learned ourselves, and we take this as an opportunity to give back to the next generation of programmers … those who might be our future colleagues someday.
Please understand that many of us within the DaniWeb community have that mentality, and we choose to help students who are frustrated trying to do an assignment and stuck on a specific part of it because we remember what it was like for us, and we want to see students be less frustrated and more enthusiastic about learning how to program. It’s something that we are passionate about, and that’s why we take the time out of our day to spend countless hours helping students be successful.
If a student posts a homework assignment on DaniWeb and doesn’t show much evidence of trying or showing us the code they have so far, then they’re more likely than not to just be scoffed at and told to come back once they’ve put in some effort.
However, if the student does show a true willingness to learn and understand, and is demonstrating effort on their end, then our community will take out the time to help them. If that entire discussion is then later deleted, forget about the student, it’s incredibly disrespectful and unfair to the person who took the time out of the day to help someone. Their reward for taking the time to do so was that they not only helped the one student, but they helped all of the future students who read what they posted and also learned. As is common with discussion communities and online forums, content exists not just for the single person asking the question but for all of the countless students who see the information days, weeks, months and even years in the future, and learn from it as well. It’s the gift that keeps on giving, so to speak Deleting a discussion effectively removes the sense of reward and value that the helper received in exchange for their time.
Let me present you for a moment with the scenario of where it’s paid tutoring with a monetary reward, as opposed to the reward being an abstract one. Suppose someone you never met before hires you to tutor him in math once a week for an entire semester for $50 a session. By the end of the first session, you see that he’s really passionate about learning, and it excites you to spend time helping someone who genuinely is interested and isn’t just in it for the grade. One day, during your usual tutoring session, he approaches you with a challenging mathematical puzzle, and tells you that it’s been puzzling him all day, and asks for help in understanding the concepts surrounding it. By the end of the tutoring session, you’ve worked with him in understanding all of the concepts, and with the information he learned from you, he was now able to solve the puzzle on his own. You left feeling like you helped someone understand something and got $50 to boot. Now suppose a few hours later a random person approached you and said that he was the student’s math professor, and he told the student not to ask anyone for help, but because the student didn’t listen to him, he is going to take your $50 from you because you shouldn’t have gotten it in the first place. Why are YOU being punished when you’re not the one who did anything wrong and had no way of knowing? The onus should have been on the student to use moral judgment in determining what he should and shouldn’t ask you during your tutoring session.
Either way, a student who cheats gets cheated out of an education. But there’s no reason to punish the person who did nothing but help someone learn lose the only rewards they got – (1) the satisfaction of seeing their own helpful comments and ideas that they took the time to write actually be posted somewhere so they can help others in the future and not just vanish into oblivion and (2) an increase in their post count and solved thread / reputation / endorsement statistics on the site, which wouldn’t be counted if their posts were deleted.
There’s simply no way for us to know whether an assignment is for fun out of a Programming for Dummies book, a learning exercise, a graded assignment, or a final project. We also have no way of knowing what the specific policies are at a particular individual’s school. A curriculum may disallow using online forums while another may encourage it. We put the onus on the student to judge whether their individual curriculum allows for our type of environment. Similarly, the risk is on the student should they know they are violating their school’s honesty policy and get caught by a professor who sees their forum thread.
From my own experience, I personally feel so strongly about how much can be learned from online forums that I equate deleting a forum thread of someone who received help with an assignment to prevent future cheating with disallowing students from entering the library to prevent plagiarism. Yes, it’s an extreme example, but in both cases, we offer the tools, and a way of learning with the tools, and it’s up to the student to use their own sense of judgment and ethics to not abuse them.
The reason for my lengthy reply is because I want you to understand that it’s not simply the case that I consider academic honesty not my problem. On the contrary, it’s a topic I’m quite passionate about. However, I don’t see the gain in deleting the thread after the fact in a cheating scenario. The cheater already got all the help they came for and they’re now gone. Instead, deleting the thread after the fact is only punishing the volunteer helpers who lose all the benefits that were their reasons for helping in the first place, and it’s punishing all those people in the future who might have read the thread and would otherwise have learned something from someone else’s mistakes, who aren’t necessarily doing the exact same homework assignment or making any attempts at cheating.
It’s for this reason that I equated participating in a discussion forum to visiting a library … Because both essentially are knowledge bases of information, and it should be up to the student to use their best judgment in deciding how to use those valuable tools: either for asking someone for answers on a forum for an assignment they should be doing themselves, or plagiarizing from a book when writing a research paper. Both are very valuable tools and both can be equally abused.
The true value in a forum comes not necessarily for the person asking the question in the first place, but all the millions of others who learn something from it in the future. The cheater already cheated and got their answer. And the thread exists perpetually as a means for their professor to find out about it. It’s not fair to punish the honest folks for the cheater’s mistakes.